PennDOT drains Turnpike cash
The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s first superhighway. It also has become one of the most expensive roads in the country to travel. If you are in a passenger car driving the entire length of the turnpike from the Delaware River Bridge in the east to Gateway in the west, it will cost you $42.30 if you pay cash, $30.32 if you have an E-Z Pass.
Traversing the Pennsylvania Turnpike gets more expensive for truck traffic, significantly more expensive. That same eastwest trip for the heaviest and largest of trucks costs $1,634.35. As if that isn’t bad enough, recent annual fare hikes are projected to continue into the foreseeable future.
Pennsylvania is known as the Keystone state and for good reason. Geographically we are centrally located for both northsouth and east-west traffic destined for some of the nation’s most populous cities. For decades the turnpike has been a key traffic route, but now both freight haulers and passenger cars are seeking out other routes — such as Interstate 81 that, while a bit out of the way for some, charge no tolls.
These facts have not escaped the attention of state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale who recently sounded alarm bells over the turnpike’s fragile fiscal situation. In his audit of turnpike practices DePasquale said: “The plan for the turnpike’s financial future relies on projections calling for a 215% increase in toll revenue between 2015 and 2035 and a 44% increase in traffic volume through 2044. However, traffic volume has remained relatively flat over the last decade.”
These two projections are inherently contradictory as basic economics dictates that consumers use less of a product as prices rise — especially if prices rise at a much faster rate than the income of the purchaser. Thus, we can expect the past decade’s “relatively flat” traffic volumes to either remain so, or perhaps even decline as such significant toll hikes continue to be implemented. It would be easy to blame mismanagement and the turnpike commissions’ often criticized hiring and contracting practices for these annual rate hikes. But, in this case the problem has been caused by the state legislature, not by turnpike administration. Act 44 of 2007 requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to make payments of $450 million per year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. PennDOT then spends the money on highway maintenance and on subsidizing mass transit operations. Since the passage of Act 44, $5.2 billion in fare revenue has been diverted from turnpike operations to PennDOT.
Act 44 was passed with the unrealistic expectation that Interstate 80 would be converted to a toll road operated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. That revenue would offset the mandated subsidy to PennDOT. State officials appealed to both the Bush and Obama administrations for approval of the scheme, but were rejected. As a result the turnpike has been saddled with making annual payments to PennDOT and no source to fund those transfers except annual fare hikes.
The legislative mandate is also having another impact: the turnpike is reducing planned spending on maintenance, improvements, and expansion. An ambitious rebuilding plan that includes expansion of the turnpike to six lanes in many areas has already been reduced by $1 billion over the next 10 years. DePasquale pointed out the folly of the situation stating: “You can’t cut back on construction and increase traffic 44%, especially while jacking up the toll rates.”
The subsidies to PennDOT are scheduled to end in 2022, but by then the turnpike’s financial situation will be dire. Worse, legislators will then have to determine how to fund the insatiable appetite for subsidies required by the state’s money-losing mass transit systems.
This problem should have been addressed two years ago when the legislature passed and Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a de facto 30-cent per gallon increase in gasoline taxes. That would have been the time to end “haphazard funding gimmicks” such as Act 44 and placed both the Pennsylvania Turnpike and PennDOT on solid financial footing. It didn’t happen then. But it needs to happen now before, as DePasquale concluded, the system collapses “and leaves the turnpike and people who rely on public transit systems across the state in a world of hurt.”